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How Australia is faring on global indices

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park yourself here?

 

Many Australians were greatly relieved at the change of Federal government from May 21 2022. Australia hadn’t been faring well on the international stage, especially with respect to the global warming crisis, but also regarding political governance and other issues. Of course the Labor government has only been in office for three months, so I don’t expect judgements to have turned around significantly at this point. The purpose of this piece is to describe Australia’s position on a number of international surveys, and then to return to those surveys in about twelve months’ time to see if and how the view of Australia internationally has changed.

I was motivated to write this by a passage in David Brophy’s book China Panic, in which he mentioned two such international surveys, the CIVICUS monitor, which apparently measures democratic credentials, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. I’d never heard of these surveys, which is hardly surprising for a dilettantish autodidact. Three surveys I have monitored are the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the OECD’s Better Life Index and the UN’s Human Development Index. So now we have five, and counting. What follows is my attempt to summarise their most current findings.

The CIVICUS monitor. CIVICUS is, as far as I can tell, not an acronym. Based in Johannesburg, the organisation describes itself as:

a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world…. Our definition of civil society is broad and covers non-governmental organisations, activists, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and social movements, voluntary bodies, campaigning organisations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations. Our membership is diverse, spanning a wide range of issues, sizes and organisation types.

According to Brophy, the CIVICUS monitor downgraded Australia’a democratic status (in the broad sense described above) from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ in 2019. The latest findings, from 2021, are unchanged. To explain, the monitor divides the world’s nations into 5 levels, which, top to bottom, are open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed. On further inspection, I’ve found that there’s a ‘live rating’, last updated for Australia on 25/5/22, a few days after the election. Hopefully things will have improved by 2023. To compare a few other countries – New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Uruguay, Suriname, Taiwan, Portugal and most Northern European countries are classed as ‘open’. Other ‘narrowed’ countries include Namibia, Italy, France, the UK, Japan  and Bulgaria. Obstructed countries include the USA, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, Poland, Indonesia and Morocco. A colour-coded map provides an at-a-glance reference to any country of interest. The repressed and closed countries can generally be guessed at. China, Vietnam and most Middle Eastern counties are classed as ‘closed’.

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI is a product of Transparency International, which advertises itself thus:

Transparency International is a global movement working in over 100 countries to end the injustice of corruption. We focus on issues with the greatest impact on people’s lives and hold the powerful to account for the common good. Through our advocacy, campaigning and research, we work to expose the systems and networks that enable corruption to thrive, demanding greater transparency and integrity in all areas of public life.

First set up in 1993 by an ex-World Bank official, Peter Eigen and like-minded associates, first-hand witnesses of global corruption, the organisation was established in then recently re-unified Berlin.

An article in The Conversation, posted in late January 2022, points out that in 2012 Australia ranked level with Norway in 7th position as to ‘cleanness’. The 2021 index, to which The Conversation refers, sees Australia as having slipped to 18th while Norway has risen to 4th, out of 180 countries. Much of what Brophy writes in China Panic is an account of why the country I happen to have ended up in has fallen so far so fast. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which publishes the Democracy Index, is one of the sources for this index, along with Freedom House and the World Justice Project. The three equal top countries on this index are New Zealand, Denmark and Finland, and the bottom three are Somalia, Syria and South Sudan. Anyway, re Australia, this one will be worth watching over the next few years.

The Democracy Index. I’ve written about the Democracy Index, inter alia, in a previous piece. It’s produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, associated with The Economist magazine in the UK. Here’s their raison d’être blurb:

The EIU Democracy Index provides a snapshot of the state of world democracy for 165 independent states and two territories. The Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on 60 indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime

Australia ranks a fairly creditable 9th on the Democracy Index list for 2021, well below NewZealand (2nd) but also well above the country we’ve been showing so much allegiance to in recent decades, the USA, which ranks 26th and is considered a flawed democracy. According to the index’s ratings, the world is inching towards hell in a hand basket – 70% of the world’s nations have become less democratic in the last twelve months, and this downward trend has prevailed for some years. Australia, though, has been faring worse than most. I don’t have access to the previous rankings, but each nation is given an annual score out of ten. Australia’s 2021 score is 8.90, compared to 8.96 in 2020. The score has regularly dropped from a high of 9.22 in the years 2010-2012, the period of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Prime Ministerships.

The OECD Better Life Index. This measures the ‘life experience’ of an ‘elite’ group of about 40 of the world’s wealthiest countries, members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to eleven different criteria, including education, environment, safety and health. When I first accessed the index, about 6 or 7 years ago, Australia was ranked number 2 across all criteria, behind the ever-triumphant Norway, and well ahead of the US in around 12th spot. Currently Australia is ranked 7th, and the USA 8th. Norway still ranks first.

On looking into Australia’s ranking for each criterion (the 11 criteria are housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance) I can’t help but scratch my head at some of the results. Australia ranks 1st for ‘civic engagement’, but 20th for ‘community’ (!!??). I would have thought that one entails the other. Also, Australia ranks 2nd for housing (but city rental has become unaffordable for most young people), and 2nd for education, which again surprises me from a general persecutive, though our post-grad sector definitely punches above its weight. At the other end of the spectrum, Australia ranks 30th for safety, another surprise. The OECD claims that the average homicide rate for member countries is 2.6 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Australia’s homicide rate for 2019-20 was 1.02 per 100,000, the highest in nearly ten years, but clearly well below the OECD average. Of course, homicide is only one measure, but I’ve not heard of Australia having a high crime rate in general. Strange. But the worst ranking is 33rd for work-life balance!? But having rarely worked a day in my life, I couldn’t possibly comment.

The UN Human Development Index (HDI). Here’s the blurb about this one:

The Human Development Index, or HDI, is a metric compiled by the United Nations and used to quantify a country’s “average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.” Human Development Index value is determined by combining a country’s scores in a vast and wide-ranging assortment of indicators including life expectancy, literacy rate, rural populations’ access to electricity, GDP per capita, exports and imports, homicide rate, multidimensional poverty index, income inequality, internet availability, and many more.

The HDI website only provides information from 2019 and places Australia in a tie with The Netherlands at 8th in the world, with a score of .944 on a scale from 0 to 1. Norway again gets top spot, just ahead of Ireland and Switzerland. Interestingly, Australia ranks higher than four countries it likes to compare itself with, the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, but little explanation is given for the ranking, which appears to be have been stable for a few years.

So, to summarise, I don’t know what to make of all these indices, which I suspect subtly influence each other in their ratings. We appear to always make the top ten, but rarely the top 5. If we could take advantage of our climate and resources to be be a greater power in renewables, instead of lagging (except in domestic rooftop solar) as we have done over the last decade, we could really make the world pay more attention to us, for better or worse.

References

David Brophy, China Panic: Australia’s alternative to paranoia and pandering, 2021

https://monitor.civicus.org

Global Ranking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

https://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/#/11111111111

https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/hdi-by-country

Written by stewart henderson

August 24, 2022 at 4:04 pm

Amazing internet, female science communicators and fighting global warming: an interminable conversation 4

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from Renew Economy – SA doing quite well

 

Jacinta: As I’ve said many times – or at least I’ve thought many times – the internet is surely the greatest development in human history for those interested in self-education. Can you think of anything to compare?

Canto: Not really. The printing press was important, but literacy rates were much lower when that came out – which makes me think that universal education, which includes literacy of course, must be up there. But of course it was never really universal, and I suppose neither is the internet, but it appears to have penetrated further and wider, and much faster than any previous technology…

Jacinta: Universal education was more or less compulsory, and so very top-down. Not self-education at all. The internet gives every individual more control…

Canto: And most choose to stay within their own social media bubble. But for those keen to learn, yes the internet just gets more and more fantastic. 

Jacinta: And the trend now is for spoken presentations, with bells and whistles, rather than reams of writing, which can be off-putting…

Canto: Well, our stuff is pretend-speak. We don’t do videos because we’re both extremely ugly, and even our voices are hideous, and we haven’t a clue about bells and whistles. 

Jacinta: Sigh. Consigned to obscurity, but we must perforce mumble on into the vacuum of our little internet space. Even so, I’d like to enthuse, however impotently, about the many excellent female science presenters out there, with their vodcasts or vlogs or whatever, such as Australia’s Engineering with Rosie, as well as Kathy loves physics and history, Sabine Hossenfelder and Dr Becky. And I’ll keep an eye out for more.

Canto: But of course we still love books. The most recent read has been Saul Griffith’s The Big Switch, a call to action on renewables, particularly here in Australia. 

Jacinta: So with a change of government, Australia is now going to try and catch up with the leading nations re renewable energy and generally changing the energy landscape. So it’s time to turn to the Renew Economy website, the best Australian site for what’s happening with renewables. First stop is the bar graph that’s long featured on the site. It shows that the eastern states, Queensland, NSW and Victoria, are the problem states, still heavily reliant on coal. Victoria is arguably worst as it relies on brown coal for about two thirds of its supply. 

Canto: And the other two states use black coal, but they’ve developed a lot more solar than Victoria. They are, of course, a lot sunnier than Victoria. What’s the difference between the two coals, in environmental terms? 

Jacinta: Black coal, aka anthracite, is generally regarded as a superior fuel. It contains less water than brown coal, aka lignite, and more carbon. You have to use quite a lot more brown coal – maybe 3 times as much – to extract the same amount of energy as anthracite. According to Environment Victoria,

Brown coal is pulverised and then burned in large-scale boilers. The heat is used to boil water and the steam is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. By world standards these pollutants are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.

I’ve left in the links, which are to other Environment Victoria articles. Clearly this website isn’t government controlled, as it castigates heavily subsidised ‘boondoggle’ projects intended to keep the brown coal afloat (very problematic for mining). These projects have apparently gone nowhere. However the site does mention the ‘recent’ announcement of an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in the Latrobe Valley, providing at least 500 jobs. But since the article isn’t dated, I don’t know how recent it is. PLEASE DATE YOUR ARTICLES. 

Canto: Yeah, and please do your research Jazz. That plant, announced in 2018, was scrapped last November. Apparently it was announced ahead of the 2018 election. And over-hyped, as it was never guaranteed that the ‘promised’ 500 jobs would be created. Politics. 

Jacinta: Sad. Manufacturing has been in a sorry state in Australia for years. As Saul Griffith points out, we rely largely on the raw materials – crushed rocks – we export to keep our economy going, but if we could switch to other crushed rocks for the growing renewable energy economy we would be even better off. Further, if we added value through processing this material at home, we might be even better off financially, and we wouldn’t have to import those processed materials as we do now. Our two biggest imports are petrol and cars. If we could produce that stuff here we wouldn’t be paying for another country’s production costs, according to Griffith. Though I’m not quite sure if it’s that simple. 

Canto: So you’re talking essentially about manufacturing in Australia. The Reserve Bank (RBA) has an interesting article on this topic, and here’s a quote from the opening summary: 

Manufacturing output and employment have fallen steadily as a share of the Australian economy for the past three decades… the increase in the supply of manufactured goods from low-cost sources abroad, exacerbated by the appreciation of the Australian dollar during the period of rising commodity prices, impaired the viability of many domestic manufacturers and precipitated the closure of some manufacturing production over the past decade. While the recent exchange rate depreciation has helped to improve competitiveness of Australian producers, so far there is only limited evidence of a recovery in manufacturing output and investment.

Economics isn’t my strong suit, but I think I understand what ‘exchange rate depreciation’ means. Something like the exchange rate has swung a bit more in our favour (for home-grown manufacturing) than it was before..

Jacinta: But wouldn’t the exchange rate between us and other countries vary greatly from country to country? Or maybe they take an average, that’s to say of the countries we tend to trade with?

Canto: I suppose so. The article goes on to say that manufacturing hasn’t declined so much as commodity exports have increased. Commodities being raw materials, mostly. And by the way, this article is from the June quarter of 2016, and I suspect things have gotten worse for this gap between manufacturing and commodities. So, not so out-of date re trends. It claims that ‘over the 2000s, strong Asian demand for Australian commodities led to a sharp increase in the terms of trade and an appreciation of the Australian dollar’. 

Jacinta: Well, we all appreciate the Aussie dollar…

Canto: Appreciation just means a rise in value. An increase in the terms of trade means an increase in the trading price agreed by any two countries, for example Australia and China, our big bogey man trading partner. Here it might mean beneficial terms of trade for Australia specifically. So basically, manufacturing has stagnated, and declined as a percentage of total output, which includes commodities. Manufacturing industries as an employer have declined quite sharply – as I can personally attest to. I’ve worked in five different factories in my life, all of which have since closed down – for which I take no responsibility. 

Jacinta: So there would be a lack of skilled workers in manufacturing, unless… do we make solar panels here? And what about the old car factories we had here – Mitsubishis and Holdens, remember? Though I presume making EVs would require a whole different skill-set, and besides, wouldn’t it be largely automated? 

Canto: Well, in February – that’s 2022 – the Australia Institute posted a highly optimistic media release entitled ‘Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research’. And with the new federal government elected in May, this hope, expressed in a report from the AI’s Carmichael Centre, Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacturing in Australia: Industrial Opportunities in an Electrified Future, may actually be realised, at least partially. But before I explore that report – solar photovoltaic manufacturing in Australia. A recent (early July) Guardian article reports that ‘China controls over 80% of the global photovoltaic (PV) solar supply chain, with one out of every seven panels produced worldwide being manufactured by a single factory’. And China is actually increasing production, so as to dominate the market. Diversification is urgently required. Meanwhile, Australia is suffering a labour shortage in the field. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that ‘one in three installation jobs in Australia – including electricians and installers – were unfilled and at risk of remaining unfilled in 2023’. Tindo Solar is our only home-grown PV manufacturer, and is expanding its output, but clearly this is dwarfed by China’s production. Also there’s a problem with expending production here because, currently, it actually creates more carbon emissions. We need to ‘create renewables with renewables’, which local experts are saying is now more cost-effective than ever. So, back to the report on vehicle manufacturing in Australia. It’s a job trying to access the full report, so I’ll rely on the media release. It describes our country as ‘uniquely blessed’ to rebuild our car manufacturing capabilities, retooled to EVs, but this will require essential government input – a view very much consistent with Griffith’s. Here are some of the recommendations from the report:

  • Establishing an EV Manufacturing Industry Commission
  • Using tax incentives to encourage firms involved in the extraction of key minerals – primarily lithium and rare earths – with local manufacturing capabilities, especially emerging Australian EV battery industries
  • Introducing a long-term strategy for vocational training, ensuring the establishment of skills to service major EV manufacturers looking to set up operations Australia
  • Offering major global manufacturers incentives (tax incentives, access to infrastructure, potential public capital participation, etc) to set up – especially in Australian regions undergoing transition from carbon-intensive industries
  • Introducing local procurement laws for the rapid electrification of government vehicle fleets

Jacinta: So, as Griffith points out, we need to do some lobbying for this ourselves. Here in SA, we have a sympathetic state government as well as a federal government keen to make up for lost time, or at least saying all the right things. Where do we start? 

Canto: The Clean Energy Council has a website that encourages everyone to get educated (they cite a number of resources such as Renew Economy and ARENA), to spread the word, and of course to actually invest in renewable energy, which we, as impoverished public housing renters, aren’t in a great position to do, though we are trying to get our Housing Association to explore renewable options, and to lobby the government in our name. 

Jacinta: I think I’m starting to feel more optimistic…

References

Saul Griffith, The big switch: Australia’s electric future. 2022

Difference Between Black and Brown coal

Nem Watch

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-10/electric-vehicle-factory-deal-in-latrobe-valley-collapses/100608074

Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research

Click to access bu-0616-4.pdf

https://www.carmichaelcentre.org.au/rebuilding_vehicle_manufacture_in_australia

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/08/australia-could-see-a-solar-cell-renaissance-if-global-supply-chain-is-diversified

https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/herenow/get-involved

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2022 at 7:29 pm

Australia, religion and the appeal of eternity

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The latest Australian census figures are out, and as always I zoom in on religion and our quite rapid abandonment of….

It’s not that I’m against religion exactly, I recognise it as an attempt to understand our world, before science came along. Often to understand it as story. The story of how the world formed, and who formed it. Religions, I notice, are always about personae, doing Very Powerful things. Creating the heavens and the earth, plants and animals, and of course humans. For some kind of moral purpose, which we must constantly try to discern, from the signs and stories of the creators. And some humans are better at pinning down this purpose than others, and they become elevated as intermediaries between the creators, to whom we owe everything, and our benighted selves, tossed on the waves of godly caprice, which only seems like caprice, because the gods have a higher purpose which even the most blessed and spiritual of mortals can only partially comprehend.

Anyway, the census. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘A question on religion has been included in all Australian censuses since 1911. Answering this question has always been optional but is answered by nearly all respondents’. In that first census, over 100 years ago, pretty close to 100% of Australians described themselves as religious – essentially meaning Christian. And things hadn’t changed that much by the 1971 census, when still a vast majority – 87 to 88 percent – described themselves as Christian, and the number of people who dared admit to any other religious belief was virtually zero. But by the seventies, the hodge-podge of regulations that made up the White Australia Policy had been dismantled, so that by this latest census (2021), religious beliefs other than Christianity were being admitted to by just over 10 percent of respondents.

But Christianity has fared particularly badly over the past fifty years, as the graph above shows. I first started paying serious attention to this trend away from Christianity after the 2006 census, and from memory, I gave a talk to the SA Humanist Society after the release of the 2011 census, noting the trend, particularly the fact that the abandonment of Christian belief was accelerating. However, I predicted, at least to myself, that this trend would soon start to ‘plateau’. My reasoning was partly based on the breakdown of Christianity into denominations. Not a complete breakdown, from my very basic research. The ABS broke it down into Catholicism, Anglicanism and Other Christian, and it was very clear that Anglicanism was fading most quickly, and Catholicism most slowly. It seemed to me that Anglicanism, which, unsurprisingly, had been the most practiced Christian religion in the early censuses, had suffered in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to its reforms and increasing liberalism (though of course it has its conservative faction). Considering that religion is supposed to be about the eternal values of the creator, unchanging since our creation, rather than about values that simply change with the times – what some call social evolution – it may have caused many Anglicans to lose faith in religion altogether, or even to switch to something more ‘eternal’, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. My prediction was that Anglicanism would continue to lose support until it bottomed out, in the fairly near future, and that Catholicism would also start to level out, what with all those cultural Catholics who built their social lives around the Church. And there was also the popularity of those Big Church evangelicals and Pentecostals, the ‘Charismatics’ that I kept hearing about.

So I was taken by surprise by the 2016 census, which saw the biggest drop in the Anglican religion of any previous census, as well as a more substantial drop in Catholicism than anticipated. The ‘other Christian’ category had also dropped, and the no religion category had risen to just over 30%. These figures upended my expectations completely, so I was more open to what the 2021 census would bring. Even so, a jump from 30% non-religious to 39% in five years is pretty amazing – but rapid change has been the norm in modern times, at least in the WEIRD world. Today we talk in terms of generations – the baby boomers, the millennials, generations X,Y and Z, and it’s all a bit hard to parse. I don’t think the generation of the 1740s would have had much difficulty in dealing with gen 1760, except of course to complain about their youthful foolishness, as Aristotle was wont to do.

So, as you can see from the graph, ‘no religion’ is pretty well certain to replace Christianity as the largest religious category in the next census, while owing to our increasingly multicultural mix, other religions will continue to rise, though not substantially. Interestingly the largest jump in religious presence since the 2016 census is that of the Yazidis, a largely Kurdish-speaking religious group from northern Iraq and surrounding regions, fleeing from persecution by the so-called Islamic State. Though it only ‘took off’ in the 12th century, its origins are apparently pre-Islamic and pre-Zoroastrian, later tinged with Sufi and Islamic influences. So, I learn something new every day.

Of course, the cultural make-up of Australia is changing, but slowly. We could do with expanding our immigration program, and behaving in a less hostile and cruel way towards refugees. I’m not religious of course, but bringing into the country a wider variety of religio-cultural groups might tend to water down the influence of the very male Judeo-Christian god that has been worshipped in this country for so long. Even if these new religions have their own patriarchal features, as most do, the divisions between them might tend to dilute the patriarchy of Catholicism, the Christian religion that has always most concerned me. Catholicism began to challenge Anglicanism as the most practiced, or at least believed in, denomination in Australia in the post-war period, though there was always a large Catholic presence, particularly Irish-Catholic, before that. It continues to be the most persistent denomination, but it will clearly never be the politically dominant influence it was in the 1950s. Even so, it’s noticeable that the religiosity of our political leaders, our parliamentarians, in terms of numbers, is greater than the general population – just as the average age of parliamentarians is greater than the general population.

As mentioned, the above graph clearly shows that the biggest religious category in the next census will be ‘no religion’. And that category will continue to grow over the next decades, and even the immigrants with their different religious varieties may go the way of the majority.

But us oldies may not, or will not be here to witness what happens. What will these developments mean for the nation? How will it have changed our politico-social landscape after we have passed? That’s the sad thing, life is very addictive, and we don’t want it to stop. We always want to know what happens. No wonder eternal life is so profoundly appealing.

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 16, 2022 at 10:46 pm

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 

References

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/

https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car

https://www.marketforces.org.au/politicaldonations2021/

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

a bonobo world 36: there is no bonobo nation

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nations, some say

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 and 300 thousand years, depending on various theories and interpretations. I always like to point out that the ‘first’ H sapiens had parents and grandparents, who wouldn’t have noticed any difference between junior and themselves, so when does a new species actually begin?

Leaving that thorny problem, I’ll turn to another – when did the first nation begin? My uneducated conjecture is that it was an evolving concept, post-dating the evolution of human language, and we have little idea about when that process was completed, at least to the point where we could conceptualise and communicate such ideas. Modern nations, with boundaries, checkpoints, passports and state paraphernalia, are of course ultra-new, with some fresh ones popping up in my lifetime, but I’ve heard Australian Aboriginal language groups described as nations, with the first of these H sapiens arriving here around 65,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Australia. Of course they wouldn’t have arrived here as nations, however defined, so when did they become such?  Bill Gammage, in The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia, makes this point at the outset:

Hundreds of pages try to define Aboriginal social units (tribe, horde, clan, mob, language group, family, kin) without achieving clarity or consensus.

So is this a silly question? Surely not, since the term ‘First Nations’ has gained currency in recent decades. Rather bizarrely, the Wikipedia article on First Nations focuses solely on the early inhabitants of what is now Canada. This is presumably because these people are recognised as such by the Canadian government, at least for statistical reasons. In any case, these early people of North America, Australia and elsewhere mostly didn’t use writing, and their doubtless various self-references might be translated by us, at their bidding, as nations, but it’s clear that using such a term adds a certain gloss borrowed from modern lingo. Gammage does the same thing, perhaps justifiably, in referring to Aboriginal Australia as an estate, a term which I tend to associate with snotty landowners and gated communities. However, it also puts the focus on land, rather than people. 

We’ve come to associate nationhood with progress, civilisation and sophistication. No wonder the Kurds, the Basques and other cultural-linguistic groups are striving for it, and in particular for land on which to fix these qualities. The progression appears to go from group – as with chimps, bonobos and no doubt early hominids – to tribe, to settlement, to a collection of settlements or villages, to a centralised, sort of inward-facing region of shared culture, flourishing up to a civilisation of sorts. So it starts, for us, with our common ancestry with our primate cousins. 

We know that chimps and gorillas separate into groups that control particular territories, but if these groups are too small or avoid interaction with other groups, inbreeding will become a problem. This problem, which confronts all social species, can be solved by male or female dispersal – that’s to say, by breeding or ready-to-breed young adults flitting from their natal group to a neighbouring one. But moving to a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood might be as fraught, or more so, for non-human species as it is for us. According to an article published by the Royal Society in 2017, when there are limited opportunities for dispersal, many species appear to have a behavioural avoidance pattern to prevent inbreeding. For example, closely related elephants avoid mating altogether. In other species, they manage to mate without producing offspring, or produce healthy offspring even where the chances of inbreeding would seem to be high. 

We often make jokes about human inbreeding, especially with island populations (Tasmanians are sometimes targeted), but there are real issues with inward, ultra-nationalist thinking, which can lead to a kind of cultural inbreeding. This can even transcend nations, as with the touting of ‘Asian values’. Considering that millions of Asians have paired up with non-Asians, this might pose a problem for the offspring, if such notions were taken seriously.

Anyway, my own view of nations, for what it’s worth, is that that they’ve become a useful mechanism for divvying up land into states. Land has been an essential feature of human culture – this land is my land, this land is your land, this land is made for you and me. The obsession humans have with the myth of land ownership is something I’ve often found rather comical. I won’t go into the shenanigans around Antarctica, but I’ll relate a couple of illustrative anecdotes.

In my boisterous youth I accompanied a couple of housemates in visiting a nearby tennis court, which I’d previously noticed was surrounded by the usual high, open-wire fencing, but fronted by an unlocked gate. On the far side of the court were the vast sporting fields of St Peter’s College, one of the most exclusive private schools in the city, and beyond that, the imposing buildings of that august institution. I’d persuaded my housemates to take our racquets over for a fun hit out, though there was no net, and we only had two racquets between three. So we’d been at it for about 15 minutes when I spotted a figure marching towards us across the sward. As he closed in, I took note of the tweed jacket, the flapping flag of his woollen scarf, the swept-back, neatly combed blonde hair. I won’t try to mimic his accent or recall his exact words – distance lends a certain enchantment to the view – but there was no forgetting his sense of complete outrage. ‘Excuse me boys, but you must realise that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY!’ Those last two words are the only ones I’m certain of. 

I spent the next few weeks daydreaming of hoisting this gentleman by his own petard, but also reflecting on the quasi-religious power of landed property. It was exactly as if we’d abused, or worse, denied, someone’s god.  

Another incident was much more recent. An Aboriginal woman complained to me on the street that I – meaning we ‘whites’ – were on her land. I responded to her, perhaps in a frustrated tone, that land was land, it belonged to itself. This wasn’t particularly articulate, but she didn’t have any response. I suppose what I meant was that the Earth’s land, ever changing, shifting and subducting, had been around for billions of years, and for most of human existence we thought no more of land ownership than did the animals we hunted. How things have changed. 

Of course, nationalism is not going away any time soon, and I’m prepared to make my peace with it. States have their obvious uses, in binding a smaller proportion of the human population together via laws, economic co-operation and political policies. The Einsteinian dream of a world government is unworkable, and the United Nations still needs a lot of work, though it has been beneficial on balance, especially via its ancillary organisations. The problem of course is ultranationalism, in both its outward expansionist form, and its inward-facing exclusivity and xenophobia. Diversity, or variety, is obviously a good thing, whether in diet, industry, arts or genetics. My own modest experience in teaching students from scores of nations tells me that Homo sapiens, like Pan paniscus, are one people, with similar interests, in laughing, loving, wondering and striving for more. Our strivings and problems are much more global than national – a veritable internet of interests. I hope that this realisation is growing.  

References

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Nations

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.160422

Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia, 2012.

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2021 at 7:57 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.

References

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/not-merely-the-finest-tv-documentary-series-ever-made

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/brv.12556#:~:text=Easter%20Island%20deforestation%20has%20traditionally,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility 2

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Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’re beginning to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared may be an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of our social relationships. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to compare themselves to, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows.

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the lager males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. I may look at sexual dimorphism more generally in a later post.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. In ‘The Teachable Ape’, a chapter of his book She has her mother’s laugh, Carl Zimmer tells the tale of the ‘ill-fated’ Burke and Wills expedition which attempted to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. The team was heavily but inappropriately provisioned, even carrying Victorian-era furniture to make their campsites comfortable, but more importantly they weren’t anywhere near culturally prepared for spending long months in the arid landscape of central Australia. A starving remnant of the group stumbled onto a settlement of the Yandruwandha people, who had been living more or less comfortably from the land, in what is now the northern region of South Australia, just south of Cooper Creek, for tens of thousands of years. The Yandruwandha helped the Europeans out, allowing them access to their watering holes and feeding them fish, nardoo bread or porridge, and whatever they might bring back from their hunting trips. But sadly, tensions rose due to the arrogance of at least one of the Europeans, apparently humiliated at being forced to rely on ‘savages’ for survival. The Yandruwandha walked off, leaving the newcomers to their fate. Zimmer ends his tale with these words:

Burke and Wills were celebrated with statues, coins and stamps. Yet their achievement was to have died in a place where others had thrived for thousands of years. The Yandruwandha got no honours for that.

C Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p451

Zimmer, of course, is correct, but it’s doubtful that his words would’ve been written, thought or accepted in the early 20th century, say halfway between the Burke and Wills tragedy and today. We’ve made vital progress, especially in the past 50 years, in recognising the adaptive intelligence of human cultures very different from our own, and even of other species. We can learn from them as we too have to adapt to different human environments, such as the post-industrial, technology-heavy, rapidly-renovating society we associate with ‘the west’. The roles of men, women, children, families and other human types and configurations are up for re-evaluation as never before.

References

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/diet#:~:text=Honey%2C%20eggs%2C%20soil%2C%20mushrooms,small%20mammals%20(young%20duiker).

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

https://www.britannica.com/animal/bonobo

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh: the powers, perversions and potential of heredity, 2018.

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2020 at 3:05 pm

electric vehicles in Australia – how bad/good is it?

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Hyundai Ionique electric – top marks from the Green Vehicle Guide

 

Following on from the interview with Prof Mark Howden that I reported on recently, I’m wondering what the situation is for anyone wanting to buy an EV in Australia today. What’s on the market, what are the prices, how is the infrastructure, and what if, like me, you might want just to hire an EV occasionally rather than own one?

Inspired by Britain’s Fully Charged show, especially the new episodes entitled Maddie Goes Electric, I’m going to do a little research on what I fully expect to be the bleak scenario of EV availability and cost in Australia. Clearly, we’re well behind the UK in terms of the advance towards EV. One of Maddie’s first steps, for example, in researching EVs was to go to a place called the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre (EVEC), for a first dip into this new world. I cheekily did a net search for Australia’s EVEC, but I didn’t come up completely empty, in that we do have an Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) and an Electric Vehicle Council (EVC), which I’ll have to investigate further. Maddie also looked up UK’s Green Car Guide, and I’ve just learned that Australia has a corresponding Green Vehicle Guide. I need to excuse my ignorance up to this point – I don’t even own a car, and haven’t for years, and I’m not in the market for one, being chronically poor, and not having space for one where I live, not even in terms of off-street parking, but I occasionally hire a car for holidays and would love to be able to do so with an EV. We shall see.

So the Green Vehicle Guide ranks the recently-released all-electric Hyundai Ioniq as the best-performing green vehicle on the Australian market (that’s performance, not sales, where it seems to be nowhere, probably because it’s so new). It’s priced at somewhere between about $35,000 and $50,000. Here’s what a car sales site has to say:

The arrival of the Hyundai IONIQ five-door hatchback signals Australia is finally setting out on its evolution to an electrified automotive society. The IONIQ is the cheapest battery-electric vehicle on sale in Australia and that’s important in itself. But it’s also significant that Australia’s third biggest vehicle retailer has committed to this course when most majors aren’t even close to signing off such a vehicle. In fact, just to underline Hyundai’s push into green motoring, the IONIQ isn’t just a car; it’s a whole range with three drivetrains – hybrid, plug-in and EV.

I need to find out the precise difference between a hybrid and a plug-in… It’s steep learning curve time.

Anyway, some reporting suggests that Australia’s bleak EV situation is turning around. This Guardian article from August 2019 predicts that EV sales are set to rise significantly, regardless of government inaction:

Modelling suggests the electric vehicle share of new car sales in Australia will rise from about 0.34% today to 8% in 2025. It is predicted to then leap to 27% of new car sales in 2030 and 50% in 2035 as prices of electric car technology fall.

2025 isn’t far off, so I’m a bit skeptical of these figures. Nevertheless, I’ll be monitoring the Australian EV scene more closely from now on.

References

https://www.iea.org/policies/7885-a-national-strategy-for-electric-vehicles

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/half-of-all-new-cars-sold-in-australia-by-2035-will-be-electric-forecast

https://www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au/

Maddie Goes Electric, Episode 1: Choosing your electric car (A beginner’s guide) | Fully Charged

Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2020 at 5:14 pm

climate change – we know what we should be doing

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Professor Mark Howden of the ANU and the IPCC – straight science and economic sense

Here in Australia we have a national government that hates to mention human-induced climate change publicly, whatever their personal views are, and clearly they’re varied. I’ve long suspected that there’s a top-down policy (which long predates our current PM) of not mentioning anthropogenic global warming, lest it outrage a large part of the conservative base, while doing a few things behind the scenes to support renewables and reduce emissions. It’s a sort of half-hearted, disorganised approach to what is clearly a major problem locally and globally. And meanwhile some less disciplined or less chained members or former members of this government, such as former PM Tony Abbott and current MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, are ignoring the party line (and science), and so revealing just how half-arsed the government’s way of dealing with the problem really is. The national opposition doesn’t seem much better on this issue, and it might well be a matter of following the money…

So I was impressed with a recent ABC interview with Australian climate scientist and leading member of the IPCC, Professor Mark Howden, also director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, who spoke a world of good sense in about ten minutes. 

The interview was preceded by the statement that the government is holding to its emission reduction targets – considered to be rather minimal by climate change scientists – while possibly ‘tweaking’ broader climate change policy. This is another example of ‘don’t scare the base’, IMHO. It was also reported that the government felt it might reach its Paris agreement without using ‘carry-over credits’ from the previous Kyoto agreement.  

The issue here is that our government, in its wisdom, felt that it should get credit for ‘more than meeting’ its Kyoto targets. As Howden pointed out, those Kyoto targets were easy to meet because we’d have met them even while increasing our emissions (which we in fact did). Spoken without any sense of irony by the unflappable professor. 

There’s no provision in the Paris agreement for such ‘carry-over credits’ – however the government has previously relied on them as an entitlement, and in fact pushed for them in a recent meeting in Madrid. Now, it’s changing its tune, slightly. The hullabaloo over the bushfire tragedies has been an influence, as well as a growing sense that reaching the Paris targets without these credits is do-able. Interestingly, Howden suggests that the credits are important for us meeting our Paris commitments up to 2030, as they make up more than half the required emissions reductions. So, if they’re included, we’ll need a 16% reduction from here, rather than a 26 – 28% reduction. But is this cheating? Is it in the spirit of the Paris agreement? Surely not, apart from legal considerations. It certainly affects any idea that Australia might play a leadership role in emissions reductions. 

So now the government is indicating that it might scrap the reliance on credits and find real reductions – which is, in fact, a fairly momentous decision for this conservative administration, because the core emissions from energy, transport, waste and other activities are all rising and would need to be turned around (I’m paraphrasing Howden here). So far no policies have been announced, or are clearly in the offing, to effect this turnaround. There’s an Emissions Reductions Fund,  established in 2014-5 to support businesses, farmers, landowners in reducing emissions through a carbon credit scheme (this is news to me) but according to Howden it’s in need of more public funding, and the ‘carbon sinks’ – that’s to say the forests that have been burning horrifically in past weeks  – which the government has been partly relying upon, are proving to be less stable than hoped. So there are limitations to the government’s current policies. Howden argues for a range of additional policies, but as he says, they’ve rejected (presumably permanently) so many options in the past, most notably carbon pricing, that the cupboard looks pretty bare for the future. There’s of course a speedier move towards renewables in electricity generation – which represents about 30% of emissions, the other 70% being with industry, agriculture, transport and mining (see my previous piece on fracking, for example, a practice that looks to be on the increase in Australia). Howden puts forward the case that it’s in this 70% area that policies can be most helpful, both in emissions reduction and jobs growth. For example, in transport, Australia is well behind other nations in the uptake of EVs, which our government has done nothing to support, unlike most advanced economies. Having EVs working off a renewables grid would reduce transport emissions massively. Other efficiencies which could be encouraged by government policy would be reducing livestock methane emissions through feed and husbandry reforms, such as maintaining shade and other stress-reducing conditions. This can increase productivity and reduce per-unit environmental footprint – or hoofprint. 

As to the old carbon pricing argument – Howden points out that during the brief period that carbon pricing was implemented in Australia, core emissions dropped significantly, and the economy continued to grow. It was clearly successful, and its rescinding in around 2015 has proved disastrous. Howden feels that it’s hard to foresee Australia meeting its 2030 Paris targets without some sort of price on carbon – given that there won’t be any deal on carry-over credits. There’s also an expectation that targets will be ramped up, post-2030. 

So, the message is that we need to sensibly revisit carbon pricing as soon as possible, and we need to look positively at abatement policies as encouraging growth and innovation – the cost of doing nothing being much greater than the costs involved in emissions reduction. And there are plenty of innovations out there – you can easily look them up on youtube, starting with the Fully Charged show out of Britain. The complacency of the current Oz government in view of the challenges before us is itself energy-draining – like watching a fat-arsed couch potato yawning his way towards an early death. 

References

https://iview.abc.net.au/show/abc-news-mornings

https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/government/emissions-reduction-fund/about

https://ussromantics.com/2020/01/02/fracking-hell/

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2020 at 10:37 am

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm